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Video: Piedmont Blūz Plays Piedmont Blues

Very early in a conversation with Valerie and Benedict Turner — Piedmont Blūz — I commented that the range of Piedmont style guitarists seemed very wide. A layperson wouldn’t necessarily see a close stylistic link, for instance, between Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt.

Valerie, who herself is a Piedmont style guitarist, explained it pretty simply: Piedmont is a technique. It can be used across genres — from blues to folk  to rock and roll and, presumably, beyond. It is not a genre itself. It’s a tool, not the finished product. An analogy is stream of consciousness writing. The technique can be used in mysteries, romance, historical fiction and other types of written storytelling.

The semantic issue is a bit greater since the Piedmont technique is named after a region, which probably leads many people to assume it is the music of the people who lived there and therefore genre. Thus, trying to reconcile the rural Mississippi John Hurt with Rev. Davis, who is associated with urban settings, was confusing. It makes a lot more sense when the distinction is made.

It seems that it would be a useful though not necessarily easy skillset to master. All About the Blues had a snappy overview of the style:

Piedmont guitar style has folk and ragtime influences, and is played with a light touch and a jaunty swing. Sometimes finger picks are used for volume, and there is often a hint of banjo technique in the typical Piedmont sound.

Piedmont-Bluz
Piedmont Blūz’s Valerie and Benedict Turner

The list of great guitarists who used the Piedmont style is long and illustrious. Besides Davis and Hurt, it includes Etta Baker, Blind Blake, Elizabeth Cotten, Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry (a harmonica player who teamed with McGhee), Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Josh White. Valerie and Benedict mention some contemporary players.

Though it is dominated by guitarists, there are other instruments played in the Piedmont style. Sonny Terry, for instance, was a harmonica player who teamed with Brownie McGhee for years. Many of the people who first produced this music were poor. For that reason, household items were repurposed as musical instruments, Benedict said. He plays washboards, bones and harmonica.

Piedmont Blūz, which is based in Queens, NY, was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame two years ago. The band performs and conduct workshops — in non-pandemic times, of course. Here is more from the duo.

Below the Amazon ad Piedmont Blūz’s renditionof “Last Kind Words,” which was written by Geeshie Wiley.

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